Asemic Writing
Mediating the Liminal Space

by Cheryl Penn

This short article came about as a result of unpacking a philosophical route based on the what, why and when process of ‘asemics’ pertinent to a more complex paper on asemic writing. Every time I try address a question on asemic writing, more questions seep out from under its words. This is a passage off known corridors, but one which I think may contribute to a greater understanding of my particular viewpoints on asemic writing. I have often had eyebrows raised at my continued – but why??? – a nemesis from my childhood, but still my search continues – isn’t curiosity the most special gift?

I teach courses in creative writing and thinking, but I have a particular angle – that of narrative experience. Asemic writing is one of the tools I teach in creative writing as a touchstone to creative writing freedom. By this I mean, one is not crippled by the words writing involves and/or the personal exposure many fear, but one is firstly introduced to the physical flow of movement encountered by writing. It is a form of script which then becomes that of a conductor who bends and weaves with many instruments arranged in front of him/her. The instruments of this private symphony are no longer words/ sentences/ grammar/ nouns/ morphemes/ lexemes/ syntax / and/or the myriad of other creatures which comprise language. Rather, they are the ebb and flow of communication in written form – without words. The marks made are intuitive and gestural, generally, at first introduced by outside stimuli in the form of music and poetry readings. Marks made differ, according to the sounds heard. For example, one will see completely different ‘script’ when the maker is listening to Soil Festivities (Vangelis) or listening to Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven). The point is, although to the outside observer the product is ‘illegible’, it is far from meaning-less.

This brings me to the liminal space, a term used with increasing frequency. The word “liminal” come from the Latin limens which means threshold. This is a space which is anxious, a place of ‘between’. This space is the gaps between the things we know for certain and the knowledge we wish to gain. It is stepping out into the void of experiential creativity until a new place is found to rest. It is a vestibule in which everything intersects until a new threshold is crossed. It requires an embracing of ambiguity and waiting, and it is different for everyone, but it is a locale non-the-less. The activity of creating asemic writing is then not “meaning-less”.

I use the term “meaning-less” here as I frequently encounter it in my search for parameters against which to test a theory of asemic writing.

In August 2019 I held a solo exhibition titled Letters to Spring. It was an exhibition of paintings which were all letters (prose/poetry/lament/diary) – layers and layers of letters – in fact – 15 full letters of painting-writing on each artwork. The first painting is the example I will present as a way to perhaps explain my methodology which could be used to clarify the nature and purpose of asemic writing.

From the outset, let me say that true asemic writing (for me) is filled with meaning, occupies an important place in my creative output and although it may ultimately appear illegible, it should evoke emotion and response – important criteria in realizing a value to any sort of communication tool. None of the layers are scribbled or random. Each of the coats on 10 large paintings was considered. Colour, tonal values (relevant to the emotive content), font size and intuition was important. Tecture was valuable. World news, personal loss, the daily round, memories and emotion were vital in the production of self-reflective, but universal communication. Syntax, sentences, grammar etc were all employed in the production of this work, but they were all secondary to the writing.

The Letter to Lost Innocence becomes a mediation which denies the actual purpose of written language with its intention to communicate in a known tongue with an existing alphabet. One is choosing, very deliberately to render written communication powerless. This speaks to a wrestling of power from the written word – one which, in any event is incrementally, but surely placing us on the path of a completely post-literate society. Very little is innocent anymore. Everything is being stretched and tested, changed and questioned and written language is no different.

Each layer was covered – either completely or partially by broad strokes of painted writing of a more intense sort. History is a layered experience and so are we. Pursuant to that, like it or not, language has shrivelled.

Yes, it has evolved too, but its importance has diminished and its capacity for assimilating information is overlooked. I sadly say this from a relatively informed point of view. The meditation between the mind and hand-formed script cannot be overemphasised.

I have suffered the loss of an only child. But I am far from the only one. It is, and always will be devastating. There is no way to express such loss in words – spoken or written. Grief has its own Countenance. Writing marks may then be gestured into the liminal space which will never ever again experience the laughter of that child – can such asemic writing ever be considered ‘meaning-less’? Many of the people I interact with have experienced deep, deep loss. Such experience can be counselled but not consoled, or shared but not halved. Language fails to express these depths of loss, but the repeated physical action of asemic writing can be employed again and again, on every single artwork/page, many times, in public privacy to mediate the emotion of loss – it is a tool of great power, therefore it is not ‘meaning-less’ for me.

How can we ever mediate the loss of parents through spoken language? The palimpsest of the story of our lives is vast, multi layered and individual – but not so unique. The paths we walk are human, the lives we live are endless: generations come and go, but the earth will stand forever – isn’t the living of that far more profound than the writing of it? Known language then falls so short in even describing nature: the endless cycles of sun sets and the paths of the wind, water drawn from the earth, gathered into clouds to fall back to the earth again.

Memory is masked by time – how does one depict such a concept in images, except to be obvious, or to write it in something as simple as words? Asemic writing takes the dark shapes of unknown circuitous routes we wander, while their physicalness, their aesthetic materiality express the notion that for all our knowledge, some of the wisdom which dies with the previous generation may not be replaced with new, better wisdom – it is replaced with more wind chasing.

Letter #4 : Letter to Lost Moments

Did you write letters, or keep diaries when you were young? Did language mediate your thoughts and feelings? Those are moments sealed on paper layered by time. Like bubbles which burst a few seconds after they are blown, the liminal space between these moments needs mention too. How? By a painting? By spoken or written language? Did we even imagine them correctly? Asemic writing is intuitive – it attempts rather than prescribes. “My truth-your truth” is a difficult concept for me. Yes, it may relate to personal experience, but what is that essentially? The desire to always be right? The right to question everything as a matter of course? The inability to accept a reality other than the one we have created for ourselves? Grieving moments, guilty moments, glorious moments, moments of shame – those are private, and asemic writing ventures a way to express, in an unreadable/illegible manner all moments. In such a case the expression of a moment in inaccessible writing is not meaningless at all – on the contrary – it is the epitome of private expression which can be made public because it holds its secrets safe. How is this meaningless?

Have you ever lost your voice? Has language ever failed you? Have you stood in the liminal space of no words? That space of just feelings, emotions, shapes and shadows? Try asemic writing: as you think and move the pen to the rhythm of your soul, the writing will take its own form and beat its own drum. It will move the pneuma of all you wish to express for the season in which you are living. It is the movement of ecstasy, perhaps accompanied by the song of pain. Your asemic voice expressed in word-like marks creates a time of dance, an expression of your inside, on the outside. Harsh emotions require heavy asemic marks. Sadness finds expression in blue, leaking marks. Happiness is a lilting communicative mark, all of which can be understood as abstract ‘words’ – thoughts made flesh. Meaning-less marks? I don’t think so.

Lost faith – how would one paint that? Or write that whilst trying to actually verify it? Faith in what? For me, my faith in God sits as the only certainly on the dark and oily sea of life. It is the light which penetrates unrequited effort and the beacon by which I live. It is the judge of crime and virtue, the arbiter of complexity and her unhappy fellows and to lose it is unthinkable. But I have lived a life of seeing, where mankind has picked at the bones of the Word, making monuments to himself. I have seen brute beasts on opposite sides of the same religious war and as the wise man says – “I salute those who are already dead”. And, as I write this I am aware of how ‘wordy’ these descriptions are, yet how easily asemic writing cried the tears of the oppressed and greeted the loneliness of man without his Creator.

Letter # 7: Letters to Lost Love.

And here I leave you with the rest of the titled letters. If I carried on communicating in written, understandable language, you might think me ‘preachy’ or obvious. You may be bored or have read all these words before. But have you SEEN? Have you tried to mediate loss in this way? That liminal space in which you may hover, trying to ‘get over’, ‘get around’, ‘gain understanding’ or ‘find meaning’ – try negotiating it with asemic writing – it’s universal, emotive and communicative. It weaves and enchants, bringing those who practice it an understanding that; for every dream there is a vanity to match and too many words are just a chasing after the wind.

An interesting thing happened here by not deviating from the process/medium of asemic writing. A figure started to emerge of its own accord (see letter #13 on the right). This ‘ghost’ dictated the final painting and its title without deliberate interference on my part.

My intention in unpacking this asemic artwork is to support my position that asemic writing is not and neither should it be a medium of ‘meaning-lessness’. My artworks are large – now upwards of 2m x 2m, layered, painterly written palimpsests which use the medium of asemic writing as an instrument for mediating the liminal space within. I have used it very successfully both personally and in courses to access, express and negotiate shadowlands – those places where we often veil the intimate self.

Asemic writing is sufficiently universal, emotive and expressive (when used with intent) to be used as a creative therapy tool.

As I am preparing a more in depth contemplation on the subject of asemic writing, I would appreciate your comments. Many thanks for taking the time to read.

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